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Troubled Tampa high school not living up to rich legacy

TAMPA — Middleton High School is supposed to be reliving its glory days, not fighting to keep its doors open.

That's why the announcement this week that Middleton risks closure if it does not improve next year marked another embarrassment for a school struggling to live up to its legacy.

Generations of history were built into the state-of-the-art campus that opened six years ago in the heart of East Tampa. From 1934 until 1971, Middleton High served students who couldn't attend white schools. One of two historically black high schools in Tampa, it closed under a federal desegregation order.

Alumni campaigned for a decade to bring it back, only to find that times had changed. The old Middleton didn't have proper books, but thrived in a tight-knit neighborhood. Today's school is rich in resources, but poor in parental support.

"Middleton is sort of like the hospital in the middle of a community that needs healing," said Fred Hearns, a 1966 alumnus who led the charge to reopen the school. "That's why it's so important for it to stay open."

• • •

The wall in Middleton's brightly lit office features framed newspaper articles about the school's engineering magnet program and the math team's success in a national competition.

Principal Carl Green prefers not to dwell on other headlines. Last year, bullets were fired on campus during summer school. No one was injured and the shooter wasn't a Middleton student.

But for Green, on his third day in the job, the shooting showed how Middleton is often drawn into problems rooted in the broader community.

"I've been fighting that perception for a year now," Green said. "We're not the community, we're Middleton High School."

The former Navy officer had a trying first year.

A teacher-student sex scandal in the fall was exacerbated by reports that another student warned administrators about it, but was suspended pending a parent conference for spreading rumors.

In the spring, Tampa police went public with their frustration over having to deploy two to 15 officers each afternoon to keep the peace around Middleton as hundreds of students walk home.

Now, after five consecutive D grades, Middleton faces state sanctions if its academic performance does not improve in the coming school year. It could be shut down, or restructured.

School officials pledge that won't happen. Last year, Middleton made progress under the state grading formula, but not enough to go up a letter grade.

These problems aren't all Middleton's fault. The high school receives a large concentration of students who arrive struggling to read and are far behind state expectations in math.

Two-thirds of Middleton students are impoverished. Although legal segregation has ended, 72 percent of Middleton students are black.

Program after program has been put into place to help one of Hillsborough's most challenging populations: EXCELerator, SpringBoard, AVID, Urban Debate League, Urban Teaching Academy. There are high hopes that a new cosmetology program will help keep students in school.

Middleton also touts a math, science, engineering and technology magnet that lets students graduate with industry-standard certifications. The magnet enrolls 425 students, but could add several hundred more.

Green said negative publicity doesn't help efforts to recruit students from outside the Middleton boundary. He wants neighborhood students to apply, too, but it's been a hard sell.

"They just need to take advantage of what's here," Green said. He has found the district gives Middleton everything it asks for. School officials jump on grant opportunities.

"We take advantage of all of them," he said. "But our population does not."

• • •

In the spring, Middleton held a community expo to show off what it has to offer, complete with information on colleges, adult education, technical schools. And free food.

Maybe 20 parents showed up, Green said. Maybe.

"We don't have the magnitude of support that we should have," he said. "Do I think it will cure things? I think it would take care of a lot."

He said parents are in reaction mode. They come to school only when something happens.

And they may have seen a different face each time. Green was the third principal at Middleton in five years.

Among alumni, there's grumbling about that lack of consistency, as well as Green's inexperience. Middleton is his first full principal assignment.

Some have come to believe the Middleton attendance boundary was another mistake. Alumni helped draw the attendance zone, but say it has placed a disproportionate number of struggling students in Middleton.

"Allow for some of the lower performers to be exchanged for some of the higher performing students," said Calvin Simmons, president of the Middleton alumni association. "That sounds like a real negative comment, but that's one way of fixing the problem."

School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, a Middleton alumna, agrees it may be time to rethink the boundary. She also sees promise in the support rallying behind Middleton from alumni and church leaders.

"It has been rough going for the school for a while, but this is not who we are," she said. "This school has a rich history. Out of that school, we've had people who have gone onto amazing things."

For her part, Edgecomb said she and other alumni can be more visible at the school, showing students what they could accomplish with a Middleton education.

She and Hearns agree on one thing: Students have to take the lead in their own future.

"We got more done under segregation in many aspects in education than we're getting done now," Hearns said.

Times researchers Will Short Gorham and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

>>FAST FACTS

Middleton High notable alumni

Les Miller: First African-American to hold the post of minority leader in both Florida legislative chambers, and his wife, Gwen Miller, the first African-American elected citywide to Tampa City Council.

George Edgecomb: Hills­borough County's first African-American judge, and his wife, Doretha Edgecomb, a School Board member.

Sandra Helen Wilson: First woman and the first African-American to earn a doctorate at the University of South Florida.

Bennie Holder: First African-American police chief of Tampa.

Rev. Arthur Jones: Leader of Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Carrollwood.

James Hargrett: The first African-American state representative elected from Hillsborough.

Troubled Tampa high school not living up to rich legacy 08/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 6:52pm]
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